Yale University Admission Essay Sample: Musings of Bygone Days

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"Musings of Bygone Days" by Sibjeet Mahapatra

There's a slender volume on the top shelf of my bookcase, nestled snugly in between Midnight's Children and The Sun Also Rises. Given a cursory glance, there's nothing extraordinary about this book—a stylized peacock in green, orange and black is the sole embellishment on a plain white dust jacket. A title and author are printed on top of the image: Musings of Bygone Days, by Hari Hara Das.

If you were to tug the book from its spot on the shelf, meaning to flip idly through the crisp, still-white pages, you would learn two new things about it. The first is that apart from the title, this book is not written in English. The contents are typeset in a peculiar language, full of swooping, curvaceous characters that intertwine sinuously on each page.

You would also see a dedication, located prominently on the inside cover. It's in black ink, written in a bold, flourishing hand. "Presented with love to my dearest Sibjeet. Hari Hara Das, 28 July, 2003."

Hari Hara Das is my maternal grandfather. He has written over fifteen books—five novels and novellas, four short story anthologies, several collections of poetry. My mother tells me that for twenty-eight years, he taught university students how to wield a pen with grace, and power, and restraint. He is an author in every sense of the word.

Every novel, story, and poem my grandfather has written is in Oriya. It's an Indo-Aryan language, rooted in Sanskrit, comprised of swooping, curvaceous characters that intertwine sinuously on each page.

I can't read a word of it.

My mother tried to teach me—throughout elementary school, not a summer went by in which she didn't try to entice me to sit down with a ragged Oriya preschool primer. But I was younger then, and didn't think that learning a strange alphabet was important enough to keep me from the street hockey games that were going on without me as I chafed under my mother's lessons.

*****

When I was twelve years old, my grandfather gave me Musings of Bygone Days on the last day of one of our biannual trips to India. We had stayed in his house for only a week, and though I was happy to spend time with him, I was more eager to play badminton and tease stray cats and plan pranks on my grandmother, abetted by similarly-impish cousins.

The morning of my departure, he pulled me aside and handed me the book. It wasn't wrapped, and I was thrilled to see his name on the cover.

"Is this one of the books you wrote, Grandfather?" I blurted excitedly.

"Indeed it is," he replied in his booming, professorial voice. "It's a collection of poetry."

Eagerly, I flipped through the first few pages—and stopped. Crestfallen, I turned to him, and had the grace to look embarrassed. "Grandfather, this is in Oriya. I can't read it."

I began to hand it back to him, but he smiled and shook his head.

"That's not the point at all. Someday, I hope you will be able to read this. Until then, please keep it, and fill in the words yourself."

*****

So I keep the book on the top shelf of my bookcase. Take it down, from time to time. Trace the characters with my fingers, marveling at their smoothness, wondering what they might say. I like to think I'll find out someday.

In the meantime, I tell my own stories, pen my own poems, compose essays and articles and critiques, just as he did for his entire life.

I layer my words over his, and the English blurs with Oriya when I write.

Sibjeet Mahapatra attends Yale University.

Essay Review

when english blurs with oriya

Good essays often begin with a close-up view of a concrete detail before pulling back to show the big picture. Many authors start with a snippet of conversation between two people. Sibjeet Mahapatra begins with a close-up of his bookshelf and follows the reader's eye until it reaches his grandfather, the primary subject of his essay. Mahapatra divides the essay into three segments—as any writer could—to highlight major transitions. After beginning with the bookshelf, he uses dialogue in the middle segment to emphasize his excitement at receiving the gift of his grandfather's book. Note the sentence of factual description between the quotations from his grandfather. Big chunks of dialogue are generally less effective than shorter ones interspersed with narration that keeps the story moving forward.

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